It’s estimated that almost 50% of women in the UK are in menopause. That’s a huge number of the population going through a big life transition. For some women, it can be debilitating, for others, less so.
If you’re confused by what that actually means, so was I. That’s likely to be because the terms perimenopause, menopause and postmenopausal are usually all bunched under the one term — menopause. Working through it with a GP friend of mine, it seems that menopause is used as an umbrella term to describe the entire experience — so that’s from when our periods start getting erratic, to when they completely stop around a year later, and sometimes beyond that in the years to come. Adding to that is the confusion that many women are on some form of contraceptive pill, or coil, and are not quite sure when their periods have entirely stopped. So, to be precise, perimenopause are the years leading up to when your periods stop. Menopause is the twelve months when they’ve completely stopped (assuming you know they have). And postmenopause is the time following that, which a woman remains in for the rest of her life.
To date, well, let’s say up to the 1950’s, the general focus on women’s lives and health challenges has either been at best, dismissed or disregarded, or at worst, attributed to certain forms of madness and she was either given electric shock treatment, or taken off to be put into a mental institution. How far we’ve come since then. And as we begin an altogether different path, one where women can openly discuss these important and transitional phases of their lives, we find that there are enormously varying opinions popping up on the experience of menopause.
So, who’s paved the way for us getting vocal on the topic? And who’s helping us understand ourselves better as a result? Well, up until recently, you had to dig around a bit. Over in the US, there’s Dr Christiane Northrop, who began writing about the menopause and women’s bodies from a medical perspective in the 90’s. She’s an advocate of HRT, but also talks equally as much about holistic ways to help women feel better as they navigate the menopause. In the UK, in 2016, minor celebrity Meg Mathews, began experiencing menopause symptoms and bravely talked publicly of her shock at the lack of support and understanding shown to women during this time in their lives. She used her public persona to elevate the topic and has made it her life mission to break the stigma around menopause. As well as lots of press articles, Meg offers a book, as well as a website full of blog posts about many of the symptoms women feel. I like the suggestions of lifestyle changes that can help, without a heavy focus on HRT as the only viable solution.
Fast track to the last few years. When TV presenter Davina McCall turned 44 and felt like she was losing it, with hot flushes, depression, and mental fog, she, too, noticed the lack of discussion around the topic and the continued embarrassment and unease women felt talking about this time in their lives (at work, but also to friends and to their partners). In response, she made a Channel 4 documentary telling her, and other women’s, menopause stories, as well as breaking some of the taboos that still exist.
This week I watched the follow up documentary Davina made — without having watched the first one and without knowing her story. I was surprised at how heavily it focussed on HRT. The message she left us with, was — if you’re not taking HRT (and the new research they reveal, shows that this should be taken sooner rather than later i.e at perimenopause stage), then you’re exposing yourself to a far greater risk of developing to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Goodness knows then, where that leaves those of us who’ve never even taken HRT and don’t plan to? It left me feeling worried and uncomfortable, yet it doesn’t change the fact that Davina has elevated the conversation on menopause to a whole new level in the UK and I find that hugely brave, and hugely inspirational.
So, if we’re looking for guidance on what to do and what to take — what’s the right answer? There are of course, hundreds. What works for me, may not work for you. What works for you, may not work for hundreds of other women. This is the richness of life and the obvious problem with traditional medicine, which looks at us all and assumes a symptom requires the same solution for everyone. As I’m in the midst of writing this, I’ve nipped off to join a group of ladies, all around my age, for a lunchtime dip in the sea. It’s early May and the water is still chilly, but we embrace it anyway with our usual joviality and sense of awe and wonder as the light catches the tips of the waves and twinkles at us as we float by. After our swim, I mention my thoughts on the subject of menopause and Davina’s programme, asking them briefly, what their own challenges have been. Even amongst the five of us, there was quite a mishmash of feelings, reflections and experiences, but no one seemed to have the lengthy, hugely debilitating symptoms Davina described. I found myself wondering, could this be down to the fact that they live by the sea? And that they absolutely love their coastal lifestyle and are therefore less stressed? Or that they spend some of their spare time immersed in cold water? Or that they’re outdoorsy types who exercise and get lots of Vitamin D? My hope is to do short interviews with each of them to delve a little deeper.
So, if you’re a woman reading this and you’re in the peri, menopause or postmenopause phase of your life, how do you feel your lifestyle to date has impacted, or is impacting, your menopause experience both physically, as well as mentally? Do you even feel it makes a difference, or do you think it’s just ‘luck of the draw’ what symptoms you experience? Could having more whole foods and less caffeine alleviate some of your mood swings, perhaps? Could a little more exercise help your insomnia? Could a bit of cold water swimming help your hot flushes? And what about Breathwork, or mediation? Might that help to detox your body, boost your immunity and help reduce your stress levels?
The question is, how much time do you actually take out, just for yourself, to be, with yourself? To self-reflect on this important phase in your life. Do you ever make the time to slow down and notice what’s really been going on — on the inside, as well as the outside? Do you face those uncomfortable truths? Do you feel inconsolable, as if this is the end of everything — your youth, your looks, your agile body, your ability to conceive? Do you feel as if life hasn’t quite gone as well as you’d hoped by this point? Are you worn out, spinning a dozen plates, with angsty teenagers at home and a busy work-life schedule?
Or instead, does it feel like an exciting new phase of your life, one that you want to fully embrace? Do you want to make the time to understand yourself a little better — work out what might help alleviate those symptoms and turn this transition into something altogether easier? Perhaps one where you experience life as a woman who feels just that little bit lighter, wiser, more comfortable in your own skin, less worried about what people think?